The Skating Rink

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The Bolaño Syllabus, Updated

Though the great Roberto Bolaño fever of 2008 appears to have moderated somewhat, this year saw new Bolaño titles pop up in American bookstores with the frequency of periodicals. We’ve probably passed that point in the hype cycle – and in Bolaño’s own back catalogue – where we might look for critical consensus: in January, reviewers seemed hesitant to gainsay Monsieur Pain; by autumn, The Return was getting a decidedly mixed reception. (In between, no one except our own Emily St. John Mandel seemed to know what to do with Antwerp.) So where was a Bolañophile to turn first?

We first tried to answer this question with our original Bolaño syllabus. With the aim of offering continued guidance to newcomers and enthusiasts alike, we’ve updated it below to take into account the two most recent novels and the thirteen stories in The Return. The Insufferable Gaucho will be added shortly. We continue to feel, hype notwithstanding, that this is one of the most important authors to emerge in the last decade, and we’ll try to stay on top of the work yet to appear: an essay collection, a book of poetry, and The Sorrows of the Real Policeman (a.k.a. the “sixth part of 2666.”)

Updated 1. “Dance Card” and “Sensini” (from Last Evenings on Earth) and “Detectives” (from The Return) [1997 – 2001]

Together, these three stories offer a précis of the personal mythology that animates Bolaño’s most important writing. The first explores Latin American – and especially Chilean – politics in the 1960s and 1970s and their impact on a generation of young writers. The second finds a Bolaño-like narrator many years later, in artistic and geographic exile. The third offers a finer-grained look at “Arturo Belano’s” brief but transformative stint in Pinochet’s prison system.

2. Nazi Literature in the Americas [1996]

This early novel, a compendium of fictional writers, offers our first glimpse of the hugeness of Bolaño’s ambition. Not incidentally, it’s an excellent introduction to his peculiar sense of humor, which compacts the absurd and the deadpan until it’s hard to tell which is which. It’s a favorite (See our review).

3. Distant Star [1996]

When it was published, this probably constituted Bolaño’s most compelling narrative to date. An expansion of a chapter in Nazi Literature, it yokes together two signature preoccupations: poetry and detectives. Another favorite.

4. “Last Evenings on Earth” and “The Grub” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [1997 – 2001]

Tales of young Arturo Belano, I’m guessing. The former provides one of Bolaño’s rare glimpses of fatherhood; the latter introduces the Caborca knife and Villaviciosa, the town of assassins. Both are implicated in Bolaño’s later work.

Updated 5. Antwerp [1980s – 2002]

New Directions’ decision to publish this 90-page novella as a hardcover initially roused my suspicions, but it amply repays the investment. It is a total avant-garde freakout, and has to be among the most linguistically beautiful things Bolaño wrote. Initially, it presents as an aleatory collection of prose poems, half Nicanor Parra, half David Lynch. Quickly, though, it develops into a kind of quantum murder mystery, in which we’re trying to identify both the perpetrator and crime. In its enjambment of poetry and mayhem, a perfect set-up for…

6. The Savage Detectives [1999]

What remains to be said about The Savage Detectives? Once you read this book, you’ll want to read everything else this guy wrote (See our review).

7. “Photos” (from The Return) [1999]

A moving coda to The Savage Detectives, this story finds Arturo Belano in exile, as usual.

8. The Romantic Dogs [1980 – 1998]

Now that you’ve read The Savage Detectives, you’re probably wondering: why all this fuss about poetry? You’re probably also willing to bear with this collection, which mingles wheat and chaff, cream and crop, as it further adumbrates Bolaño’s personal mythology. It’s worth noting that Bolaño’s gifts as a poet – narrative, character, and a dreamlike vision – are identical to his gifts as a novelist.

Updated 9. “Henri Simon LePrince,” “A Literary Adventure,” and “Anne Moore’s Life” [2001]; “Phone Calls,” “Vagabond in France and Belgium,” and “Days of 1978” [1997] (from Last Evenings on Earth), “Meeting With Enrique Lihn” (from The Return) [2001]

The first three of these stories read like minor-key variations on Nazi Literature. The second three share a narrator, B, who in some incarnation – protagonist or revenant – haunts most of Bolaño’s fiction. And the third offers us a literary dream that feels almost like a dry-run for “Sensini.”

Updated 10.”Cell Mates” and “Clara” (from The Return) [1997]

Two of Bolaño’s most straightforward and accessible stories about love, these nonetheless manage to be mysteriously harrowing.

11. The Skating Rink [1993]

I humbly dissent from Wyatt Mason; this isn’t a masterpiece. It is Bolaño’s first published novel, however, and is one of his most technically accomplished. It won a regional writing contest, back in the days when (per “Sensini”) Bolaño was entering scores of them. By this point, such things are probably interesting to you.

12. “Joanna Silvestri,” “Snow,” “Buba” (from The Return) [1997 – 2001]

This triumvirate is, for me, the heart of The Return. Whereas the earlier Bolaño collection in English circled around the author’s fictional mirror image, these three – concerning a porn star, a gangster, and a soccer star, respectively – look outward, with spectacular results.

13. “Gomez Palacio,” “Mauricio ‘The Eye’ Silva,” “Dentist” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [1997 – 2001]

To hell with technique; here the other side of Bolaño holds sway. These pieces are not so much crafted as dreamed into being, and the hallucinatory intensity of the latter two serve as a perfect warm-up for 2666…

14. Amulet [1999]

…As does this novella-length expansion on an incident from The Savage Detectives. I don’t think this one is as successful as Distant Star, but by now, you’re willing to forgive that, right? Arturo Belano features heavily here. And the heroine, Auxilio Lacoutre, feels like a sketch for Florita Almada of 2666…about which Auxilio (like Césarea Tinajero) seems to be having visions…is anyone else getting dizzy?

15. “Enrique Martin” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [2001]

This is one of my two or three favorite Bolaño stories. Enrique seems to have contracted his numerological delirium from Auxilio and Césarea.

16. 2666 [2004]

Supernova and apotheosis. You can read my take here.

Updated 17. Monsieur Pain [1981 – 1982]

Again, I dissent from the newspaper reviews. Monsieur Pain strikes me as the least essential of Bolaño’s novels to appear in English. It’s palpably an early work, and far less incendiary than Antwerp. Atmospherically, it has affinities with his best short novels, but in historical drag that somehow cuts against Bolaño’s usual sense of suspense. At this point you may be willing to put up with that.

Updated 18. “William Burns,” “Murdering Whores” (from The Return) [1997 – 2001]

Speaking of inessential, I wasn’t particularly taken with these two.

Updated 19. “Prefiguration of Lalo Cura” (from The Return) [2001]

This story, on the other hand, deserves mention alongside the stronger “Joanna Silvestri” for its enthusiastically gritty take on the porn industry. Curiously, this Lalo Cura is not the same as – or at least doesn’t share parents with – the character of that name we meet in 2666. Hence “prefiguration?”

20. By Night in Chile [2000]

Some people think that this short, late novel is Bolaño’s finest, and though I don’t agree with them, it’s always good to save something for dessert. Of all Bolaño’s books, this one seems to have the fewest connections with the others, and so perhaps it would be as good a place to start as to end.

Updated 21. “The Return” (from The Return) [2001]

This story, at once revolutionary and relaxed, suggests to me where Bolaño might be headed were he still alive to day…which is to say, everywhere.

The Millions Top Ten: December 2009

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for December.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
3.

Cloud Atlas
4 months

2.


The Interrogative Mood
1 month

3.
7.

Austerlitz
3 months

4.
5. (tie)

The Corrections
2 months

5.


Let the Great World Spin
1 month

6.
4.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
6 months

7.
1.

Zeitoun
6 months

8.


The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories
1 month

9. (tie)
7. (tie)

Asterios Polyp
4 months

9. (tie)


The Mystery Guest
1 month

December saw a flurry of activity as four books made their first appearances on the list. Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood, endorsed by both Jonathan Lethem and Rick Moody, caught readers’ interest. Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin has been building momentum since its National Book Award win. I also reviewed it here and last month, Reif Larsen wrote glowingly of the book. Our recent interview with superstar translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky clearly got readers interested in their latest effort, a Tolstoy collection. And David Shields’ Year in Reading contribution, while eclectic, nonetheless drew readers’ focus to Gregoire Bouillier’s The Mystery Guest.

Powered by continued interest in The Millions’ Best of the Millennium series, where the book had a strong showing on both out panel list and our readers’ list, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas took over the top spot in the Top Ten.

And finally, dropping from the list were Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, The Skating Rink by Roberto Bolaño, The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, and The Wild Things by Dave Eggers.

See Also: Last month’s list

The Millions Top Ten: November 2009

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for November.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

Zeitoun
5 months

2.
1.

Inherent Vice
4 months

3.
3.

Cloud Atlas
3 months

4.
4.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
5 months

5. (tie)


The Corrections
1 month

5. (tie)
7.

The Skating Rink
4 months

7. (tie)
5.

Asterios Polyp
3 months

7. (tie)
10.

Austerlitz
2 months

9.


The Year of the Flood
2 months

10.
6.

The Wild Things
2 months

Dave Eggers bookends our list as Zeitoun moves into the top spot and The Wild Things lands at number 10. Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 novel The Corrections hits our list two months after a panel of writers, editors and critics assembled by The Millions named it the Best of the Millennium (So Far). The book joins Cloud Atlas and Austerlitz, which both figured prominently in the series as well. Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood has re-entered the list after falling off last month. And dropping from the list are Felonious Jazz by Bryan Gilmer and Imperial by William T. Vollmann.
See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: October 2009

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for October.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Inherent Vice
3 months

2.
2.

Zeitoun
4 months

3.
7.

Cloud Atlas
2 months

4.
3.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
4 months

5.
5. (tie)

Asterios Polyp
2 months

6.


The Wild Things
1 month

7.
4.

The Skating Rink
3 months

8.
10. (tie)

Imperial
2 months

9.
5. (tie)

Felonious Jazz
6 months

10.


Austerlitz
1 month

Dave Eggers lands a second book on our Top Ten with his novelization of the Spike Jonze movie The Wild Things. (Eggers is having similar success on some other distinguished lists.) Here at The Millions, Wild Things was a Most Anticipated book and Emily recent revisited the beloved children’s book that started it all. Also debuting is Austerlitz, the 2001 novel by W.G. Sebald. The book recently landed at #7 in our “Best of the Millennium” series.

We didn’t have any new Hall of Fame inductees this month, and falling off the Top Ten were The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, Future Missionaries of America by Matthew Vollmer, and Netherland by Joseph O’Neill.

And, finally, Inherent Vice and Zeitoun hold on to their top positions.

See Also: Last month’s list.

Diamond Dust: Roberto Bolaño’s The Skating Rink

The Skating Rink is beginner’s Roberto Bolaño: there are no six-page sentences here, byzantine plots or jeremiads against Octavio Paz. It doesn’t even have a Facebook reading group. In the quiet Mediterranean town of “Z,” Enric, a a public servant, steals government funds to build a skating rink for a beautiful figure skater named Nuria. His scheme sets in motion a series of events that culminate in a woman being bludgeoned to death at the ice rink. Over the course of the novel, three alternating narrators, Enric included, reflect on the bizarre summer, obliterating in the meantime distinctions between myth and fact, guilt and innocence.

A murder mystery only in spirit, the novel is a double-cross of a thriller. Bolaño is more interested in pushing the boundaries of genre fiction than solving the crime. The character who’ll eventually be killed isn’t even introduced until halfway through the novel. Blink and you’ll miss the murderer’s confession. Instead, the cryptic first chapters hint, tease, and stoke the reader’s imagination with grisly possibilities.

“I’m fat, five foot eight, and Catalan… [my friends] will tell you I’m the last person you’d expect to be involved in a crime,” Enric explains. Remo Morán, a Chilean expat and lapsed writer who slept with Nuria, remembers how a thick fog perfect for “Jack the Ripper” invaded the small town that summer. Gaspar Heredia, a Mexican poet Remo recruited to work in a local campground, recalls walking among “George Romero’s living dead.”

There’s so much pulpy foreboding before the actual murder at the ice rink that you can practically hear the Bernard Herrmann score; The Shining is even name-checked.

Bolaño’s plots are like Olafur Eliasson installations. The building blocks of the story may be exposed, but the scope of the structure takes a while to reveal itself. He is the master of the slow potboiler. His modus operandi here is to withhold information until the seams of the story cannot hold, creating confusion, anxiety, and the arrival of that moment in every one of his novels when it becomes inevitable to skip ahead.

That his novels are all more or less detective stories is in part generational. It’s easy to forget that in the 1970s, the authors that followed Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, “that duo of ancient machos,” as Bolaño derisively called them, turned to genre fiction – sci-fi, police thrillers – as an affront to the serious literature of the writers of the Latin American literary boom, and because only lurid fiction was suitable for portraying the despotic dictatorships and culture of violence of the decade.

But this novel is set in Costa Brava, and was written in 1993, and he won’t tackle those themes until at least Nazi Literature in the Americas. The Skating Rink is instead a daguerreotype of the meta-detective novels that will follow; Remo and Gaspar, two South American writers trying to solve a mystery, are the proto-Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano.

In one of his last interviews he explained his predilection for genre in another way. “There’s no better literary reward than to have a murderer or a missing person to chase,” he said. Connecting “the four or five threads of the story becomes irresistible because as a reader I also get lost.” [Ed Note: Translated by the author, from Edmund Paz Soldán’s Roberto Bolaño: Literatura y Apocalipsis.]

When reading The Skating Rink, the idea is: relent to the intrigue. It’s no coincidence that he kicks off the book with an invitation to live “in delirium,” “rudderless.” It’s that appeal to get lost in the text that makes him so compulsively readable. Like in all his novels, the digressions accumulate, the back-stories grow, the avalanche of information casts its spell, and the prose slowly does its voodoo.

The Millions Top Ten: September 2009

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for September.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Inherent Vice
2 months

2.
2.

Zeitoun
3 months

3.
8.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
3 months

4.
6. (tie)

The Skating Rink
2 months

5. (tie)


Asterios Polyp
1 month

5. (tie)
10.

Felonious Jazz
5 months

7.


Cloud Atlas
1 month

8.


The Year of the Flood
1 month

9.


The White Tiger
1 month

10. (tie)


Future Missionaries of America
1 month

10. (tie)


Imperial
1 month

10. (tie)
9.

Netherland
4 months

Four inductees to The Millions Hall of Fame plus gridlock in the tenth spot on our list meant room for plenty of new titles on the list in September.

Graduating to our Hall of Fame were four illustrious titles, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz, Matthew Diffee’s The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker, and Carl Wilson’s Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste. The former two titles are good examples of our readers’ taste in fiction (Wao in fact won our recent readers’ poll of the best fiction of the decade). The latter two are niche titles that sparked an enduring interest in readers despite relatively minor mentions at The Millions.

Newly appearing on the list are some recently published titles. Asterios Polyp, which we reviewed not long ago, Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood and William T. Vollmann’s Imperial, which were both on our most recent Most Anticipated list, and Future Missionaries of America by Matthew Vollmer, who was an interviewer and an interviewee for us in June.

Also debuting are Cloud Atlas, which emerged as a big favorite in our Best of the Millennium project, and The White Tiger. That one’s a bit of a mystery because we haven’t talked about it much, but it did, of course, win the Booker Prize a year ago.

Finally, Inherent Vice and Zeitoun hold on to their positions, but there are still several new releases on tap for the fall, so they may be challenged soon for the top spots.

See Also: Last month’s list.

A Bolaño Syllabus

If I could read just one book by Author X, which would it be? This may be the hardest question we can ask a fellow reader, insofar as it assumes that we can teleport straight to the heart of aesthetic experience, rather than journeying there over weeks or years. In fact, we often come to the books we love – and learn to love them – by way of other books: Dubliners primes us for Portrait, which shapes our expectations for Ulysses, which earns our indulgence for Finnegans Wake.

In this way, the justified hype surrounding the English publication last year of late Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (If you read only one book this year…) may have done some readers a disservice. Like Joyce’s, Bolaño’s is a sensibility that demands immersion, and for the kind of person who prefers to adjust to the swimming pool by inches rather than jumping straight into the deep end, the massive 2666 may have felt a lot like drowning.

Further complicating the approach to Bolaño is the suggestion of a single roman-fleuve that glimmers around the edges of the work, now brighter, now darker. A knife in the story “The Grub” resurfaces in The Savage Detectives. The first mention of the number 2666 appears in Amulet, while a note among Bolaño’s papers announces that the narrator of the former is none other than Arturo Belano, protagonist of the latter. (And is Belano the same “B” who features in the short stories of Llamadas telefónicas? Or is that Bolaño himself?)

Moreover: like our own universe, Bolaño’s continues to expand long after the Big Bang that birthed it has gone dark. As Wyatt Mason recently noted in The New York Times,
In addition to the eight [books] that have swiftly and ably arrived in translation in the six years since his death in 2003 at age 50, four new books by Bolaño are scheduled to appear in 2010 (two novels, two story collections) with three others promised for 2011. What’s more, according to recent reports out of Spain, another two finished novels have been found among Bolaño’s papers, as well as a sixth, unknown part of . . . 2666.
And so, to help acclimate newcomers to this odd and essential author; to continue mapping the Bolañoverse, as Malcolm Cowley mapped Yoknapatawpha; and to impose some order on the flood of  Bolaño releases, The Millions offers the following syllabus, which we’ll update as further translations become available, and as we take comments into account.

1. “Dance Card” and “Sensini” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [1997 – 2001]

Together, these two stories offer a précis of the personal mythology that animates Bolaño’s most important work. The first explores Latin American – and especially Chilean – politics in the 1960s and 1970s and their impact on a generation of young writers. The second finds a Bolaño-like narrator many years later, in artistic and geographic exile.

2. Nazi Literature in the Americas [1996]

This early novel, a compendium of fictional writers, offers our first glimpse of the hugeness of Bolaño’s ambition. Not incidentally, it’s an excellent introduction to his peculiar sense of humor, which compacts the absurd and the deadpan until it’s hard to tell which is which. It’s a favorite (See our review).

3. Distant Star [1996]

When it was published, this probably constituted Bolaño’s most compelling narrative to date. An expansion of a chapter in Nazi Literature, it yokes together two signature preoccupations: poetry and detectives. Another favorite.

4. “Last Evenings on Earth” and “The Grub” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [1997 – 2001]

Tales of young Arturo Belano, I’m guessing. The former provides one of Bolaño’s rare glimpses of fatherhood; the latter introduces the Caborca knife and Villaviciosa, the town of assassins. Both are implicated in Bolaño’s later work.

5. The Savage Detectives [1999]

What remains to be said about The Savage Detectives? Once you read this book, you’ll want to read everything else this guy wrote (See our review).

6. The Romantic Dogs [1980 – 1998]

Now that you’ve read The Savage Detectives, you’re probably wondering: why all this fuss about poetry? You’re probably also willing to bear with this collection, which mingles wheat and chaff, cream and crop, as it further adumbrates Bolaño’s personal mythology. It’s worth noting that Bolaño’s gifts as a poet – narrative, character, and a dreamlike vision – are identical to his gifts as a novelist.

7. “Henri Simon LePrince,” “A Literary Adventure,” and “Anne Moore’s Life” [2001]; “Phone Calls,” “Vagabond in France and Belgium,” and “Days of 1978” [1997] (from Last Evenings on Earth)

The first three of these stories read like minor-key variations on Nazi Literature. The last three share a narrator, B, who in some incarnation – protagonist or revenant – haunts most of Bolaño’s fiction. (One wonders when all of Phone Calls (from which these three stories are excerpted) will appear in English.)

8. The Skating Rink [1993]

I humbly dissent from Wyatt Mason; this isn’t a masterpiece. It is Bolaño’s first published novel, however, and is one of his most technically accomplished. It won a regional writing contest, back in the days when (per “Sensini”) Bolaño was entering scores of them. By this point, such things are probably interesting to you.

9. “Gomez Palacio,” “Mauricio ‘The Eye’ Silva,” “Dentist” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [1997 – 2001]

To hell with technique; here the other side of Bolaño holds sway. These pieces are not so much crafted as dreamed into being, and the hallucinatory intensity of the latter two serve as a perfect warm-up for 2666…

10. Amulet [1999]

…As does this novella-length expansion on an incident from The Savage Detectives. I don’t think this one is as successful as Distant Star, but by now, you’re willing to forgive that, right? Arturo Belano features heavily here. And the heroine, Auxilio Lacoutre, feels like a sketch for Florita Almada of 2666…about which Auxilio (like Césarea Tinajero) seems to be having visions…is anyone else getting dizzy?

11. “Enrique Martin” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [2001]

This is one of my two or three favorite Bolaño stories. Enrique seems to have contracted his numerological delirium from Auxilio and Césarea.

12. 2666[2004]

Supernova and apotheosis. You can read my take here.

13. By Night in Chile [2000]

Some people think that this short, late novel is Bolaño’s finest, and though I don’t agree with them, it’s always good to save something for dessert. Of all Bolaño’s books, this one seems to have the fewest connections with the others, and so perhaps it would be as good a place to start as to end.

The Millions Top Ten: August 2009

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for August.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.


Inherent Vice
1 month

2.
5.

Zeitoun
2 months

3.
4.

The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker
6 months

4.
2.

Infinite Jest
6 months

5.
6.

Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste
6 months

6. (tie)
7.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
6 months

6. (tie)


The Skating Rink
1 month

8.
8.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
2 months

9.
10.

Netherland
2 months

10.
9.

Felonious Jazz
3 months

Thomas Pynchon staged an impressive debut in August, hitting number one in The Millions Top Ten as Inherent Vice hit shelves. Garth, our resident Pynchon expert, shared his thoughts on the post-modern detective story just this week. Also debuting on our list in August is yet another title from Roberto Bolaño. Out of the gate, The Skating Rink is looking less like a footnote in Bolaño’s prolific career and more like another Bolaño masterpiece, receiving impressive notices from the likes of Wyatt Mason in The New York Times (a “short, exquisite novel“) and Scott Esposito in The Quarterly Conversation (“well worth your time“). The book was also on our most recent “Most Anticipated Books” list.

Graduating to our Hall of Fame (after being on our list for 6+ months) are two books that have been surprise Millions favorites. Kitty Burns Florey’s Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences was the jumping off point for a grammar rodeo that Garth put on analyzing a snippet of a speech by President Obama. The upshot? A Venn diagram of Millions readers and grammar lovers would show quite a lot of overlap, I now suspect. Also newly honored in our Hall of Fame is prizewinner Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, which inspired Edan to pen her much discussed “Mom Book” essay.

Other notable action: Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun, recently reviewed around here and generally getting outstanding notices, shot to the number two spot in its second month on the list.

Next month should be quite interesting as we’re poised to have four titles join the Hall of Fame, freeing up room for lots of newcomers.

See Also: Last month’s list.

Summer of My Discontent

I know it’s inauspicious to say this at the advent of our new site design, but I’m on a losing streak.  Sometimes I’m on a winning streak, and everything I read is delightful and I stay up late to finish one novel after another, and at the end of the month I feel sublime and like I am infinitesimally closer to my goal of reading everything.  But sometimes I read a novel that drags, and then another that drags, and then another, and before long I have spurned books in favor of internet television, Calvin and Hobbes, and puerile blogs.  It’s not that the novels are bad, necessarily; a bad novel is easy to shake.  It’s that they aren’t enjoyable.  They don’t make me feel happy, or pleasantly sad, or smarter.  Perhaps I ask too much.  And perhaps it’s unfair to blame the novels for what is in fact the ebb and flow of human enthusiasm and serotonin levels, but outside of the reading problem I feel quite chipper (or rather, no more curmudgeonly than usual).

I think it’s the books.  Here are the culprits, feel free to judge:

A Bend in the River: Technically this should get its own Modern Library Revue, but I’m not sure that I have enough to say.  After A House for Mr. Biswas, a picaresque delight which I read in my previous web-carnation as Widmerpool, I was unprepared for the more subtle charms of A Bend in the River.  It made me feel like I had taken a painkiller, laid down for a malarial nap in an unpleasant climate, and watched a revolution on TV.  Maybe I am just an unsubtle person, better suited to the theatrics of Mr. Biswas, because this novel seemed a touch slow to me.  It did impart a dull sense of dread, but dull only; the implications of what Naipaul was saying, the realities of the situation he described, did not feel real to me.  Maybe that was Naipaul’s intention.  More probably, I have a very limited frame of reference.  I did really like the last page.  So much, in fact, that it made me reconsider my feelings about all of the preceding pages.  Maybe I’ll read it again, when I’m feeling more charitable.

London Fields: As I have said before on this site, I really like the books by Martin Amis that I have read.  Nonetheless, I felt like he could have done with the aforementioned painkiller and nap, instead of whatever it was that he did when he was writing this novel.  (Uppers, maybe.)  To be fair (unfair?), I haven’t finished the book, but part of the reason that I haven’t finished it is that it’s kind of a chore.  It’s like going on an elaborate and fast-paced scavenger hunt arranged by someone whom you suspect dislikes you.  You don’t know what’s at the end, but you can’t be sure that it will be something nice, and it’s an awful lot of effort in the meantime.  When I wrote about The Rachel Papers, I mentioned Grass and Nabokov.  I feel them rattling around this novel too, except here they seem to have had a lovechild with Don Delillo’s Americana (another book I didn’t care for).  It’s exhausting, and I just want it to be over.

The Golden Notebook: When I saw this in the book shop, I flung myself upon it, feeling like I had identified a massive, hitherto nameless gap in my education, a gap shaped like Doris Lessing.  I thought I was going to be enthralled and entertained.  Instead, I was depressed for rather a lot of days.  The experience is not one I would describe as entertaining in the way that lying down in a basket of kittens or reading The Stand is entertaining.  I found it powerful, but unpleasant.

I really admired what Lessing did in this novel.  Among other things, she did an uncanny job of creating a malaise that was actually infectious.  It oozed right off the page and into my own spirit.  I started dragging around, inventing emotional maladies, worrying about my life, and contemplating my uterus.  When I finished the novel the malaise lifted, and I felt I had been through a mild illness.  That’s impressive, but it wasn’t fun.  What is fun is to think that Doris Lessing, by writing this novel that I found tedious and sad-making, about a lady who I found tedious and sad-making, is actually one of many reasons that I am able to feel happy, as a lady!  How about that?

Additionally, The Golden Notebook did serve as a nice, I guess, illustration of something I have been mulling over lately.  Last month I noticed that there were a lot of articles about marriage on various news and “culture” websites.  First there were articles and books and annoying blog posts saying that marriage is boring and against nature, which lead to even more annoying personal pieces about allegedly successful marriages and how superb they are for everyone (either that, or Our Problems and How We Solved Them).  When I read things like this, I think, probably unkindly, “Hmm, love to hear from your spouse about all this” and “Shut up.”  But my point, other than that people should stop talking about their significant others on the internet, is that advocates of “romance” and drama (cf Christina Nehring, A Vindication of Love) should read The Golden Notebook, and get back to me on the advantages of hot passion.  As a matter of fact, advocates of marriage (their own marriages, mostly, and specifically I mean that smug fellow on Salon), could give it a read too.  Nowhere have hot passion and marriage alike (human relationships in general, actually, and the Communist Party) seemed so utterly defeating and sad as they do in The Golden Notebook.

The Skating Rink:  Sigh.  I was so looking forward to this.  I even pre-ordered, and I never pre-order.  But it was lacklustre.  It lacked lustre, and heart, like a last-minute writing exercise from a promising MFA student.  Compared to the shocking experience of The Savage Detectives and 2666, this was very flat.  If I had read it in a magazine I would have liked it more, I think.  Being bound in boards makes everything so weighty.  So does pre-ordering.

Those are my companions in the rut, friends.  I had a couple things lined up for the rest of the month, but given the length of this losing streak, I’m not sure they are suitable.  First, The Black Book.  I like Pamuk, but I’m not sure he is the one to end a losing streak.  The man is married to melancholy.  Then a William Vollmann novel (my first), Europe Central.  But it looks heavy (like, heavy).  I’m going to the beach next week.  Will my location be incompatible with my reading material?  I’m sort of considering acquiring (preferably through theft) a copy of Twilight.  I read the first few chapters at a party, and it raised some thrilling questions.  What of the crude nationalistic symbolism of Bella’s pick-up truck?  Why is Edward, like, so mad at Bella when he doesn’t even know her?  Will my own accursed pallor be trendy this season, thanks to these sexy underaged people from Forks, Washington?  How much will I hate myself if I spend money on this book?

I’ll do anything to get out of this goddamned rut.

Most Anticipated: Rounding Out 2009, An Epic Year for Books

At the beginning of the year, we noted that “2009 may be a great year for books.” With the publishing schedule for the remainder of the year filled out, calling 2009 a great year for readers is now a certainty. If anything, 2009 is backloaded, with new titles coming in the second half of the year from legends like Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth and fan favorites like Lorrie Moore and Jonathan Lethem. A peek into 2010, meanwhile, reveals more literary excitement on tap, with new titles on the way from Jonathan Franzen, Joshua Ferris, and others. Below you’ll find, in chronological order, the titles we’re most looking forward to right now. (Special thanks to the illustrious members of The Millions Facebook group who let us know what they are looking forward to. Not everyone’s suggestions made our list, but we appreciated hearing about all of them.)In July, Dave Eggers continues the trend he started with What is the What, working closely with his subject to produce a work with elements of memoir and non-fiction. In Zeitoun, the subject is Abdulrahman Zeitoun, “a prosperous Syrian-American and father of four,” who lived in New Orleans and disappeared in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A few weeks ago, The Rumpus ran a long interview with Eggers that touches on Zeitoun, among several other topics. Eggers first encountered Zeitoun when McSweeney’s put out Voices from the Storm, an oral history of Katrina, and he told The Rumpus, “Their story intrigued me from the start, given that it’s at the intersection of so many issues in recent American life: the debacle of the government response to Katrina, the struggles facing even the most successful immigrants, a judicial system in need of repair, the problem of wrongful conviction, the paranoia wrought by the War on Terror, widespread Islamophobia.” (Scroll down to October for more “Anticipated” action from Eggers.)William T. Vollmann is known for his superhuman writing output, but his forthcoming book Imperial is a monster, even for him. Weighing in at 1,296 pages and carrying a list price of $55, this work of non-fiction is “an epic study,” in the words of the publisher, of Imperial County, California along the U.S.-Mexico border. Ed offers quite a bit more discussion of the book. Don’t miss the comments, where it’s said that Vollmann has called the book “his Moby-Dick.”August kicks off with what will no doubt be a peculiar literary event, the publication of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. It is a rare thing these days when a flurry of media attention centers on someone who has no interest in basking in it. And so, perhaps as Pynchon intends, the focus will be on the book. Inherent Vice promises to be odd. It’s 416 pages, shorter than the typical Pynchon doorstop, and the publisher Penguin, in its catalog, notes that Pynchon is “working in an unaccustomed genre” this time around. “Genre” seems to be the buzzword here. The book sports neon cover art and follows a private eye (Doc Sportello). The book begins: “She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to.” Review copies are already out, and the early word is that the novel overlaps somewhat with and bears some similarities to Vineland.Inherent Vice shares a release date with a new book by Richard Russo, That Old Cape Magic, which Entertainment Weekly has already called “very beach-y.” (Sadly, it appears to have come in last in their poll to determine the “Must book of the summer.”) It sounds like fairly standard “suburban malaise” fare in which a mid-life crisis is endured over the course of the summer, the upside for the reader being that Russo is bringing his considerable skills to the table. PW is fairly tepid on the book, “Though Russo can write gorgeous sentences and some situations are amazingly rendered… the navel-gazing interior monologues that constitute much of the novel lack the punch of Russo’s earlier work.”Of Roberto Bolaño’s forthcoming, newly translated novels, Millions contributor Lydia writes: “I almost never know about the hot, up-and-coming items, but I do happen to know about this one, and I feel that, like many readers, my relationship to Bolaño has been one of breathless anticipation since the moment I first heard his name. Which was like this: at my old job, I was going through the mail. There was a New Directions catalog of aforementioned hot, up-and-coming items. I haven’t historically had a lot of interest in contemporary trade publications, but New Directions has a very warm spot in my heart because I associate it with The Berlin Stories. Anyway, in said mag I read a blurb about Nazi Literature in the Americas, and thought it sounded really neat, and then learned I would have to wait a year to read it, and since then it feels like there’s been a lot of waiting – sometimes with glorious gratification at the end (2666), sometimes not (Nazi Literature in the Americas, ironically). It’s thrilling that they keep coming! The Skating Rink in August, Monsieur Pain in 2010. It’s like new the James Bond franchise (btw, I’m a Craig, not a Brosnan). I just love having something to look forward to. I hope I don’t wet my pants on the way to the bookstore.” (Bolaño fans will also be looking out for Melville House’s Bolaño: The Last Interview And Other Conversations)Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply returns to the territory of separated siblings (You Remind Me of Me looked at a pair of long-lost brothers.) This time, the focus is on twins, one of whom has been missing for ten years. The book garnered a blurb from Jonathan Franzen, who will appear later in this list and who says of Chaon’s book, “I’ve been waiting for somebody to write the essential identity-theft novel, and I’m very glad Dan Chaon’s the one to have done it”Let’s just get this out of the way: In September, you are going to hear a lot about Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol.More importantly, we’ll get Richard Powers’ follow up to his award-winning novel The Echo Maker. In Generosity: An Enhancement, Powers explores the idea of patenting the human gene for happiness. Last year, Powers wrote about the human genome for GQ. There’s not a lot of info available about this one but Ed Champion writes he “foresee(s) some animosity from the vanilla critics hostile to idea-driven novels,” and Sarah Weinmantweeted,” “Richard Powers’ new novel Generosity is about as audacious as a novel gets, and has fucked with my head as a reader every which way.”Lorrie Moore is set to deliver her first novel in over a decade, A Gate at the Stairs. All those Moore fans out there are faced with a huge dilemma this week. Do they read the “Childcare,” the excerpt of the novel that is the fiction offering in this week’s New Yorker, or do they avoid the magazine and hold out for two more months until the novel comes out? We’ve never been big fans of the New Yorker’s packaging of novel excerpts as short stories, so to all the Moore fans out there, we say – avert your eyes when you reach page 70 of this week’s issue!Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall is already out in much of the rest of the English-speaking world. In The Guardian, Christopher Taylor described the book as “a carefully arranged sequence of interlocking stories” and said, “while many of the stories hinge on artistic talent – the risks and unkindnesses associated with it; who’s got it and who hasn’t – the strong focus on more widespread problems in life makes Nocturnes more than a writer’s thoughts on his job.” The Complete Review rounds up the rest of the early reactions.Pete Dexter returns in September with Spooner. This one sounds like another dark, Southern tale not unlike Paris Trout, the book that first put Dexter on the fiction map. The first line of Spooner is “Spooner was born a few minutes previous to daybreak in the historic, honeysuckled little town of Milledgeville, Georgia, in a make-shift delivery room put together in the waiting area of the medical offices of Dr. Emil Wood.”We’ll also get a new novel from E.L. Doctorow about a pair of brothers. Homer & Langley is about Homer and Langley Collyer, two famous Manhattan hoarders and recluses, who, after gaining notoriety for their obsessive habits and reportedly booby-trapped home, were found dead in 1947 surrounded by, according to Wikipedia, “over 100 tons of rubbish that they had amassed over several decades.” Newsweek has an excerpt of the book. The novel’s first line is “I’m Homer, the blind brother. I didn’t lose my sight all at once, it was like the movies, a slow fade-out.”Dan Brown is no doubt getting serious bank for his return to airport bookshelves and grocery store check-out lines, but he’s not the only one having a great recession. Audrey Niffenegger reportedly took home a $5 million advance for Her Fearful Symmetry, her follow-up to her very popular The Time Traveler’s Wife. Niffenegger describes the book on her website: “The novel concerns a pair of mirror-image twins, Julia and Valentina Poole… Julia and Valentina are inseparable, and function almost as one being, although in temperament they are opposites.”Acclaimed novelist Margaret Atwood will have a new novel out in September called The Year of the Flood, which has been described as “a journey to the end of the world.” The Random House catalog, meanwhile, called it a “dystopic masterpiece and a testament to her visionary power.” If that all isn’t intriguing enough, it appears that the book is maybe (or maybe not) the second book in a trilogy that was kicked off with Oryx & Crake. Atwood and her publishers have offered mixed signals on the trilogy question. Quill & Quire looked into the question, and included a quote from Atwood saying, “It’s not a sequel and it’s not a prequel… It’s a simultaneouel.” Ah, one of those.In The Anthologist, Nicholson Baker covers well-trod literary ground by focusing on a writer protagonist. However, PW gave the book a starred review, calling it “lovely” and saying “Baker pulls off an original and touching story, demonstrating his remarkable writing ability while putting it under a microscope.” Baker’s protagonist is Paul Chowder, who is tasked with writing an introduction for a poet friend’s anthology and delivers the book’s stream of consciousness narration. By all early accounts the book is quite funny and also deeply immersed in poetry, with digressions on a number of history’s great poets. The Simon & Schuster catalog calls the book a “beguiling love story about poetry.”It’s my feeling that John Irving’s fiction has fallen off quite a bit in recent years (the last really good read for me was A Son of the Circus), but I still keep an eye on Irving’s new novels for any sign that he has regained his early career mojo. His last several books haven’t tempted me, and it’s probably too early to tell whether the Last Night in Twisted River will. Reading the first sentence of the publisher’s description, we already find a couple of Irving’s authorial tics, New Hampshire and bears: “In 1954, in the cookhouse of a logging and sawmill settlement in northern New Hampshire, an anxious twelve-year-old boy mistakes the local constable’s girlfriend for a bear.” Don’t be surprised if a wrestler figures into the action somewhere in there. Still, Irving has compared the new book to The Cider House Rules. That’s a good sign.The venerable William Trevor will have a new novel out, Love and Summer.Millions reader Matthew looks forward to Laird Hunt’s Ray of the Star, due in September, “because Laird’s novels are fantastic.” Of Kamby Bolongo Mean River by Robert Lopez, he writes “This is his sophomore novel; his first, Part of the World was bizarre and funny.” He plans to read The Museum of Eterna’s Novel by Macedonio Fernandez (arriving in 2010) “because Borges sez so.”October is sure to bring Wild Things mania and Dave Eggers is going to be right in the middle of it. He worked with Spike Jonze on the film version of Where the Wild Things Are. And, in what is sure to be the most literary novelization of a film (adapted from a children’s book) ever, an Eggers-penned version of Wild Things is set to hit shelves when the movie comes out. There’s also the fur-covered edition.New Yorker readers have already gotten a taste of Jonathan Lethem’s forthcoming book Chronic City. Of the excerpt, packaged as the story “Lostronaut,” I wrote, “This story was pretty awesome. It was the only speculative fiction to land in The New Yorker this year, not quite making up for the absence of Murakami and Saunders from the magazine’s pages. This story is told in the form of letters from Janice, a ‘Lostronaut’ aboard some sort of space station, to her ‘Dearest Chase.’ She and her fellow astronauts are trapped in orbit by Chinese space mines and that’s not even the worst of it for poor Janice. While the premise and epistolary style are intriguing, Janice’s unique, irrepressible voice really carries the story.”Readers are soon set to see the fruits of an ambitious project by R. Crumb, his illustrated Book of Genesis, a surprisingly faithful rendering of the first book of The Bible done in Crumb’s unique style. Crumb talked about the project four years ago with Robert Hughes: “I was fooling around with Adam and Eve one day. Doodling about Adam and Eve. At first I did this satirical take off on Adam and Eve – lots of jokey asides and Jewish slang because they’re Jewish right? God is Jewish… Finally I got over fooling around and I realized I just had to tell it straight.”Booker winner A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, according to publisher Knopf’s description, “spans the Victorian era through the World War I years, and centers around a famous children’s book author and the passions, betrayals, and secrets that tear apart the people she loves.” The book is out already in the UK, where a review in the Telegraph included this intriguing aside: “Byatt’s publisher is keen to present The Children’s Book, her first novel for seven years, as an equal to Possession, the work that secured her reputation and her mass-market appeal nearly 20 years ago. It certainly compares to its popular predecessor in its daring and scope and, unlike the more cerebral parts of Byatt’s output, is its equivalent in terms of storytelling and readability.”J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime is a follow up to Boyhood and Youth in Coetzee’s series of memoirs. The NYRB recently published an excerpt.Quite a lot of sub-par material has been published in order to satiate the ravenous demand for Hunter S. Thompson’s writing. Thompson’s essays for ESPN in his later years were uneven at best, but fans may find something to like in The Mutineer, which Simon & Schuster says is “The highly anticipated final volume of the previously unpublished letters of Hunter S. Thompson, king of Gonzo journalism and one of the greatest literary figures of our time.” Insofar as HST,in his latter years, may have been more entertaining and lucid in his letters, this may put The Mutineer slightly above the low bar set by other recent HST collections. On the other hand, the book is edited by Johnny Depp, implying that the book is more about venerating the cult of HST than unearthing new work on par with his best efforts.November will bring the publication of Michael Lewis’ much anticipated chronicle of the financial crisis, The Big Short. In October last year, when economic uncertainty was at its height and fears were voiced in some rarefied quarters about the possibility of some sort of structural collapse, we wrote, “The world needs an exhaustive look at what happened in 2008 and why.” There have already been several books about the collapse and what caused it, from The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown to The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008, but many readers have been waiting for a book by Lewis, both because of his long history writing about Wall Street’s excesses and because of the powerful essay he penned on the topic for Portfolio magazine in November. Some readers may be weary of the topic by the time the book comes out, but it’s sure to garner some interest.The great Philip Roth keeps churning out new novels. This year’s offering is The Humbling, Roth’s 30th novel. The publisher copy says “Everything is over for Simon Axler, the protagonist of Philip Roth’s startling new book. One of the leading American stage actors of his generation, now in his sixties, he has lost his magic, his talent, and his assurance.” The NY Times reported that yet another Roth novel, Nemesis, is due in 2010.Jonathan Safran Foer will have a non-fiction book out in November called Eating Animals, which most are guessing focuses on vegetarianism. An interview with Foer at Penguin’s UK website would seem to confirm this. It doesn’t mention the book, but the introduction says “Jonathan Safran Foer on why he doesn’t eat anything with parents.”Millions reader Laurie points us to My Bird by Fariba Vafi, translated from Farsi and originally published in Iran in 2002. The publisher Syracuse University Press says: “The narrator, a housewife and young mother living in a low-income neighborhood in [modern] Tehran…[is] forced to raise [her] children alone and care for her ailing mother… One of the most acclaimed and best-selling contemporary Iranian writers.” Laurie adds, “The novel won several literary awards in Iran and, according to a 2005 article in the New York Times, Vafi never attended college and writes when her children are in school.”2010: Probably the most anticipated book of next year will be the The Pale King, a coda to David Foster Wallace’s sadly shortened life as a writer. We already know a fair amount about the book – it will center on an IRS agent – and three excerpts have been published already, “Good People” and “Wiggle Room” in The New Yorker and “The Compliance Branch” (pdf) in Harper’s. A piece by D.T. Max went into some detail about The Pale King following DFW’s death. Given the amount work that lies ahead for DFW’s editors, this may be a second half of 2010 release.Also possibly arriving in the second half of 2010 is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which we are just beginning to hear about. The book is the long-awaited follow-up to Franzen’s loved, hated, celebrated, Oprah-snubbing novel of nearly a decade ago, The Corrections. Franzen has been coy about the title – the book is reportedly called Freedom – but readers got a taste of what Franzen has in store in “Good Neighbors,” an excerpt that was published in the New Yorker a few weeks ago.Joshua Ferris will follow up his blockbuster debut Then We Came to the End with The Unnamed. The Book Case writes, “The novel focuses on Tim and Jane Farnsworth, a long-married couple who seem to have it all. But Tim has twice battled a bizarre, inexplicable illness.” Beattie’s Book Blog mentions that the illness is that he “can’t stop walking.”John McPhee has a new book due out called Silk Parachute. McPhee wrote a 1997 Shouts & Murmurs piece called “Silk Parachute” about his elderly mother. It begins “When your mother is ninety-nine years old, you have so many memories of her that they tend to overlap, intermingle, and blur.”Time Out NY says Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask is about “Milo, a New York father who is on the brink of economic ruin, and covers themes including but not limited to ‘work, war, sex, class, race, child-rearing, romantic comedies, Benjamin Franklin, cooking shows on death row, the old-model brain, the commercialization of sadness and the eroticization of chicken wire.'”British publisher Faber says Rachel Cusk’s The Bradshaw Variations “is a powerful novel about how our choices and our loves and the family life we build will always be an echo – a variation – of a theme played out in our own childhood.”In the comments or on your own blogs, let us know what books you’re looking forward to.

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